Over my years as a planner, I’ve learned that understanding a bit of psychology is just as important as understanding cash flow or asset allocation. This is particularly crucial for me since I work primarily with caregivers.

In my profession, and in my life, I keep running into the aptly-named Ostrich Effect. This is the tendency for individuals to “bury their head in the sand” when faced with difficult or complex problems. As advisers, we need to be aware of this bias and be prepared to tackle tough situations with clients. It's our job to help them thrive.

Like many other planners, my training didn't cover counseling skills. Yet being aware of my client's behavioral tendencies has helped me put them at ease, and I’ve found some techniques that have helped them pull their “head out of the sand.”

In particular, an exercise called What-Went-Well works when speaking with clients who are caught in a cycle of negative thinking. This cycle often creates anxiety and prolongs their decision making. This counseling technique tries to break that cycle and help the client focus on a positive outcome.

I often start by asking a lot of questions and listening intently. This allows clients the space to share. After all, they’ve been dealing with this problem for a while and if I immediately come in as Mr. Sunshine, they will feel that I am discounting their worries. The next step is framing my follow-up questions toward a positive outcome.

I believe utilizing basic counseling skills in my conversations with clients helps strengthen my relationships with them.

Shane P. Larson of S.P. Larson Financial Planning
Shane P. Larson of S.P. Larson Financial Planning

ACT LIKE A COUNSELOR: LISTEN AND LEARN

Recently, I sat down with clients for a typical meeting. During the introductions, they appeared drained and sleep deprived. At first, I carried on with what I had prepared. When we began to talk about long-term care solutions, they revealed something was weighing on their minds. The wife’s elderly mother was getting kicked out of her assisted living facility. Rather than pushing through the rest of my recommendations, I decided to try and learn more about what was going on.

By asking questions and listening intently, I began to understand why this was happening: The wife’s mother suffered from Alzheimer’s and was becoming agitated, causing a risk to the other guests. The facility did not specialize in Alzheimer’s care, so they had to find a home that could accommodate her mother’s unique situation. When I asked about her mother’s finances, I learned she was on Medicaid, limiting the choices of acceptable facilities. Finally, I asked them what the ideal situation would look like. My clients wanted to find a respectable home where the mother would be comfortable — and would minimally impact their current finances. Luckily, I knew of a care consulting agency that specializes in housing issues with the elderly. I was able to get my clients the help they needed. A week later, they found a great place for the mother and were relieved I was able to refer the care consultant to them.

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"I believe utilizing basic counseling skills in my conversations with clients helps strengthen my relationships with them."

BUILD YOUR NETWORK

This experience brings me to another important point. Good counseling skills are never enough. It’s vital to have connections with other specialized professionals. Since my niche is working with caregivers, I need to surround myself with elder law attorneys, care consultants, Social Security disability lawyers and many other professionals. What potential problems could arise for your clients that would require the help of other professional services? Having these professionals in your network — along with a knowledge of basic counseling skills — will not only benefit the client but will solidify your relationship as a trusted adviser.

Shane P. Larson

Shane P. Larson, CFP, is the owner of S.P. Larson Financial Planning. He is an independent financial planner specializing in planning services for caregivers.